Traces of leaves

This week I chanced upon Pete McLean’s blogsite Art and About. Pete really does like to get about – in the natural landscape, that is – and his beautiful artworks include wood engravings as well as prints and rubbings from objects he picks up outdoors, such as bits of wood, mushrooms and leaves.

From time to time Pete makes ephemeral artworks in situ, composing handfuls of dried grass on a hillside, for example, or rearranging a drift of snow. But surprisingly he is also interested in the urban pavement and sometimes traces around fallen leaves on the footpath with chalk. For me it is interesting to discover one of those artists whose works you sometimes come across on the pavement without ever knowing who did them, or why.

But the blog post that originally caught my eye was a photograph of what Pete calls ‘concrete fossils, those special places in the suburban landscape where traces of leaves and other life have been recorded in the man made lithosphere’. Pete’s photographs reminded me of some I had taken in Stanmore (Sydney) a few years ago.

Leaf prints in Salisbury Road, Stanmore (Sydney), 2009.

I made a comment on Pete’s site, he replied, and I decided to write this post. But when I returned to his site to check that I had got things right, I found he had already written a post about Pavement Graffiti. Such is the incestuous world of the blogosphere. Thanks Pete and best wishes with your lovely creations.

Cafés

Times change. Demographics alter. Districts evolve. And always there are people who would prefer things to stay as they are.

It doesn’t seem that long since the Newtown shopping strips of King Street and Enmore Road had stores that catered for all sorts of everyday needs – fruit and vegies, butchers, delicatessens, a Coles variety store, a department store with everything from gentlemen’s underwear to lengths of ribbon, a jewellers with wedding and engagement rings, tobacconists, electrical goods, and an army disposals store.

But the Greek bakery and the fish shop and a whole lot of other shops closed down and became cafés. And people complained in writing.

'Cafe quota filled', Enmore Road, 1999

 

The old-style shopping centre has continued its transformation into something that suits whatever the current population of residents and tourists happens to be. Just recently the ‘fish shop’ café and some other coffee shops have closed down. And people are writing to complain about that.

'Can we have another cafe here please. Can't handle another clothes shop', King Street, February 2012

 

Surface reflections

Northumberland Avenue, Stanmore, NSW. February 2012.

I have just had an article published in the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture called ‘Surface reflections’. It’s about personal inscriptions on the pavement – that is, one-offs written by people who might not dare put graffiti on a wall, but who are driven by some momentary urge or temporary preoccupation to mark the pavement.

I suggest that this kind of graffiti can sometimes reveal the hidden unconscious of a place.

The journal is a print publication and could not include many photographs, so I have made a slide show of all the examples I mention in my article. You can view the slide show here.

Hicks, Megan. 2012. ‘Surface reflections: Personal graffiti on the pavement’, Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 1(3), 365-382.

Keep going

Illawarra Road, Marrickville, NSW

Marrickville is an old suburb of Sydney and has narrow streets, particularly some running in a north-south direction, that are hardly adequate to function as the major thoroughfares they have become. Illawarra Road is like this. It’s a busy route linking the north side of the suburb to the Cooks River on the south side, and yet there are places where motorists travelling in opposite directions baulk at passing each other because of the tight space between the rows of parked cars on either side.

Someone has taken matters into their own hands on one stretch of Illawarra Road. If you are driving south there is a sign painted on the road that reads ‘Keep going’. If you are travelling north there is a longer sign that assures you that ‘2 cars can safely pass … please proceed’.

I am interested in what is really going on when people write their own rules and regulations on the pavement. In this case we can probably speculate that the person who painted these advisory notices is either a local resident who sees and hears cars stopping and starting outside their house all day, or a person who frequently uses this route and is often held up by timid drivers. What may to some extent may be an altruistic gesture, meant to assist motorists in negotiating this tricky bit of road, must also involve a large component of self interest.

Illawarra Road, Marrickville, near Sydenham Road.

Harbour Bridge resurfacing

In January 2012 Sydney Harbour Bridge is being resurfaced. Naturally I am interested.

The work is taking place over two weekends, or possibly three, depending on the weather. It is the first time in the Bridge’s 80-year history that the asphalt has been stripped back to the original concrete deck. Workers with small paint rollers on sticks will waterproof the deck with epoxy and large machines will lay a smooth asphalt surface over it. More about this on the NSW Government’s Transport website.

There were long traffic queues and cranky drivers on the first weekend as cars were diverted into the Harbour Tunnel. Presumably many people had not seen the mobile traffic signs and the advertisements that had been warning for months that the Bridge would be closed.  This weekend, after all the publicity about the delays last week, you’d think people would have got the message to take a longer route to cross the harbour. But apparently not, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. There were queues again today.

On Friday afternoon I drove over the Bridge some hours before it closed at 10.00 pm. My passenger took photos. To the left of the picture an electronic sign warns that the Bridge will be closed tonight. To the right you can see Lanes 1-3 have been newly resurfaced. The patchy asphalt on Lanes 4-6 is covered in graffiti for the instruction of the workers who will shortly be ripping it up.

Sydney Harbour Bridge partially resurfaced, 20 January 2012

Not Newtown

Pennant Hills, NSW, 2008

Pavement graffiti can be found everywhere if you keep an eye out for it. That’s what I always say, but looking back through my archive of photos I wonder if that’s really true. It’s easy for me to find pavement inscriptions because I live in the inner-west of Sydney where feral art and graffiti of all sorts is a common feature of the landscape. I have also travelled in regional New South Wales a fair bit, and have found some great examples on country roads and highways.

But what about the tidy or more conservative suburbs in the wider city? Do I have many photos of pavement graffiti from these places? The answer is No.

I guess there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, although graffiti is drawn on the asphalt acres of suburbia, it is less prolific than in Glebe/Newtown/Darlinghurst. Secondly – dare I admit? – on my daily rounds I stick to the inner city and rarely venture into the ‘burbs.

But here is a small selection of examples to show that submerged stories do erupt on the paved surfaces of the suburbs.

'F--- the pigs', Marsfield, NSW, 2008

And my End-of-year resolution? More walking in unfamiliar parts of Sydney.

'Smile - You are beatiful!', Manly, NSW, 2011

Nostalgia

Pavement artist, Stanmore (Sydney), 2009

Not only do I write a ‘Pavement graffiti’ blog, but I will soon be launching a website called ‘Pavement appreciation’. This is all connected with a postgraduate research project I have undertaken on ‘Reading the pavement’.  If it all sounds like some sort of obsession then I’m afraid it is. I was recently forced to speculate that I must have had a revelatory encounter with asphalt as a small child.

This is not as silly as it sounds. The surfaces of roadways and footpaths are such an ordinary part of our everyday lives that we tend to ignore them through familiarity. But we could probably all look back to memorable moments that involved asphalt or concrete pavements and the marks upon them – scabby knees and other gravel-rash injuries, arrow chases through suburban streets, jumping over the cracks in the footpath so as not to be eaten by bears, sweaty handball games on courts painted on the school playground, mastering the art of drawing a hopscotch the right size and shape. Some Sydney people will remember being puzzled as a child at seeing ‘Eternity’ chalked on the pavement in the city.

When Marcel Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu) describes impressions in the present that revive similar sensations from the past he mentions not only the taste of the madeleine, but the unevenness of the paving-stones. Occasionally you find childhood recollections of the pavement in the works of other writers as well. Clive James, for example, in his Unreliable Memoirs describes daredevil feats in his pram-wheeled billycart and the ‘slide of the back wheels which got me round the corner unscathed, leaving black smoking trails of burnt rubber’. And in her essay Earthworm Small, Barbara Hanrahan tells how her family moved to a better part of Adelaide in the 1950s, but ‘I kept on wanting the old suburb. Cracked asphalt, corrugated iron stamped with the trademark of a royal crown, lavatory creeper and morning glory …’.

I wrote about some of my experiences with chalk and pavement in a journal article a few years ago (Eternal City). This nostalgia carries over into my present project, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. I am vindicated by British academic Elizabeth Wilson, who writes in her article Looking backward: nostalgia and the city, ‘Although the practice of academic research is meant to be an objective activity, one part of the ‘postmodernisation’ of such work has been a greater recognition of our subjective investment in it. The anthropologist and psychoanalyst, George Devereux, once wrote that all research is autobiographical, and this seems particularly clear in recent writings about urban space and cities’.

Hopscotch, Carlton (Melbourne), 2008

Mouse

Some things written in drying concrete probably don’t deserve to be preserved – trivial thoughts impetuously scribbled. But other inscriptions are sincere and loaded with meaning. When someone declares their love in the concrete, what are they thinking? Do they mean that their love will go on forever? Or do they simply want create a permanent memento of this romantic moment in their lives? Or are they casting a spell in the hope that the object of their love will reciprocate?

Observant pavement-watchers can sometimes follow the progress of a love story over a period of time.

This wet concrete inscription was photographed on the night it was made in June 2008.

'I heart Mouse', Liberty Street, Enmore, June 2008

This stencil appeared not so far away three years later.

'Marry me Mouse', Enmore Road, Enmore, August 2011

I wonder if they are related?

Newtown

 

'I have a dream' Square, King Street, Newtown, 2008

 

A while ago I came across this description:

King Street, Newtown is always more or less busy, but on Saturday night it is seen at its best and brightest.  Fancy a double line, more than a mile long, of brilliantly lighted shops; and “side-walks” so inconveniently crowded that it is often a matter of some difficulty to push one’s way through the throng of people on business and on pleasure bent.

The description seems fairly accurate to me, although it does not mention the vehicles that crawl up and down King Street on a Saturday night while their occupants ogle the crowds on the footpath. But that would be because this passage comes from an article in the June 1889 issue of the Sydney Illustrated News. King Street has been a commercial success for more than 150 years while the demographics of Newtown have ebbed and flowed.

Readers of this blog will have noticed that many of the pavement graffiti examples that I mention were photographed in Newtown. There are two main reasons for this – I live close by; and Newtown is a hub of graffiti activity. In fact, it was small esoteric stencils on the footpaths of Newtown that sparked my interest and prompted me to start my collection of pavement graffiti photographs in 1999.

Stencil publicising The Blair Witch Project movie, King Street, Newtown, 1999

Newtown was incorporated as a municipality in 1862. Cast iron roof-water outlets set into the kerb In King Street still bear the letters NMC, even though Newtown Municipal Council ceased to exist in 1949. These days part of Newtown is included in the City of Sydney, while the remainder falls within the Marrickville local government area.

Roof water outlet to gutter with embossed letters ‘NMC’, King Street, Newtown, 1999

I have discovered that this kind of information and much more is available on the Newtown Project website, which has been created by the City of Sydney Archives and various volunteers to bring together historical information about the Municipality of Newtown. The information ranges from Council Minutes to the history of the street-art group Unmitigated Audacity, whose works included the I Have a Dream mural. There is a self-guided walking tour and plus lots of early photos of Newtown streets, buildings and people – and  contemporary photos as well. Definitely worth a look.

Wilson Street

When I posted a photograph of an embellished ‘bicycle route’ stencil in Little Eveleigh Street , near Wilson Street, back in March 2010, I suggested that the bike rider with a giant penis was not simply a joke but an expression of tension between local residents and the ‘greenies’ who cycle through on the way to and from the city.

It seems I was not wrong. The battle between cyclists and locals has escalated in this neighbourhood. In August 2010 I posted another photo from Wilson Street, this time a verbal blast: Eco-cycle rapists. This week on a walk through Darlington I found another angry notice, still readable even though it has been hashed over:  Attention bike Nazis no entry!

Wilson Street is a long back street stretching from Redfern Station to Newtown Station, and passing through Darlington and MacDonaldtown on the inner-city fringes of Sydney. It has been undergoing change for some years. Its corner shops have become art studios; Sydney University threatens to engulf it as it devours real estate to the north; and along the street’s southern side the former Eveleigh Railway Workshops – which would have provided employment for many residents of the little terrace houses in years gone by – have been turned into a theatre and arts centre. ‘Gentrification’ is the name of the street drama that is being performed here daily.

Whenever I visit Wilson Street it never fails to provide me with material for my pavement graffiti collection. This week, not far from the warning to cyclists, I noticed a worn little stencil in the middle of the road: Save the shark. According to other bloggers it’s been there a few years.

Near the ‘CarriageWorks’ cultural centre, some fairly recent wet concrete scratchings include an Aboriginal flag. In the background of this photo you can see the Skippy Girls painted on the corrugated iron fence.

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